Ability Grouping Destroys Children’s Potential



This September the UK government decided that my four year old school-starter should sit a standardised IT-based test which they promised would be an accurate and valid assessment of his academic ability.

Sounds plausible?  Nope, not really, Mr Cameron.  But cheers for the heartache!

There is so much that is wrong with baseline, but the most insidious is its purpose.  Baseline testing attempts to label four year old children via their assessed ‘abilities’ (the reason why I place ‘ability’ in inverted commas during this article will become apparent later on) and predict their attainment in seven years time.

Up and down the country, our schools are gathering results, inputting them into spreadsheets and tracking every child’s progress over seven years to an outcome in Year 6 SATs which is predicted from this baseline test.  This means that if your child is behind/ahead at age 4, it is expected that they remain behind/ahead at age 11.  If you have a three year old who is more interested in climbing than counting and playing than reading, then beware!  The label is fixed in the first two weeks of school and it stays with them until they leave, affecting everything they do and, most importantly, the way each teacher they have thinks about them.

Of course schools have been testing their four year olds on reception entry for a while.  I know my oldest child was (dare I say secretly?) tested when he started school three years ago and teachers will tell parents that assessment is vital in order to inform individual teaching strategies.

Before I continue with this article, I will make it clear that I am not against my children’s learning or understanding being assessed in order that their teaching is focused.  What I am against, and what every fibre of my being screams out loud in protest at, is the affixing of labels to them.  In the case of my children’s school (and, as I have learned, most primary schools across our borough), it is deemed acceptable to group young children by the government’s standardised notion of what ‘ability’ constitutes and then physically segregate them into in-class groups emphasising that label.



or “Parents are impressed by ability streaming” (apparently)

Every study I have been able to find mentioning the effects of ability streaming/grouping/setting in primary school concludes that it is unequivocally detrimental to the emotional well-being and education of those children placed in middle and lower ability groups.  There are no studies concluding that ability grouping has a positive effect on average/lower grouped children.  Let me say that again – NONE.

It is proven that ability grouping also widens the gap in attainment between ‘high ability’ and ‘low ability’ children, whilst only marginally enhancing the performance of top achieving pupils.  Should we conclude therefore that our schools invest disproportionately in their ‘high flyers’?  It is hard to construe otherwise given it is a fact that our children’s potential (not to mention their self-belief) is at best limited and at worst damaged irreparably, when they are placed in anything other than the top group.


ioe.ac.uk – Streaming Pupils by Ability Widens the Attainment Gap – Article 25 September 2014, UCL Institute of Education
Nottingham.ac.uk – Students Experiences of Ability Grouping – Study Stanford University / King’s College London
word.co.uk – The Blue Table Means You Don’t Have a Clue – Article 2013 by Dr. Rachel Marks Ph.D.


So why are parents impressed by ability grouping despite the overwhelming evidence that it damages self-esteem and limits potential?

The short answer to this, I believe, is that most simply haven’t had cause to question the ‘party line’ towed by our, under pressure to perform, primary schools.  When I discovered my eldest son had been placed into an ability group in reception my gut instinct told me immediately that this was very, very wrong.  The argument that grouping children by ‘ability’ allows teachers to focus lessons and target teaching more effectively doesn’t hold up with me.  Do we need to physically segregate and label children within a class to differentiate teaching?   Is physically segregating and labeling children from ‘high-flyer’ to ‘virtual dunce’ (and everything in between) the only way to make sure those needing to be challenged are challenged and those needing extra help receive it?

I think not.  I think it would be nothing short of wonderful if our teachers believed in their own ‘ability’ to effectively differentiate whilst in a mixed-ability setting.


TES.com – Do setting and streaming work?  Article 22 March 2013 by William Stuart



Over recent years primary schools have been forced to act like businesses.  Under pressure by the government to bring in the big bucks (league table rankings) in order to please their shareholders (parents) and attract more customers (new pupil admissions) the focus is on churning out the absolute best products (SATs results).  The sales pitch from schools is pervasive and they speak of their own success and failure in terms of the volume of customers last year’s products brought in.

The problem with this is schools shouldn’t be anything like businesses and head teachers shouldn’t be forced into the role of sales rep.  Their purpose is to educate, not market themselves and compete with other schools.  The actual meaning of ‘intelligence’, ‘ability’ and ‘academic performance’ is so far removed from the current focus on test-sitting that I despair of those parents foolish enough to move house and home to get their children into the best school.  (Always the school with the most exemplary record of teaching to the test).


Fixed ability thinking, ability grouping

Henry, exploring




What is it that makes us successful adults?  Is it solely our ability to pass tests?  Under today’s education system you’d be forgiven for believing so.

If I use my middle child, Henry now aged 5, as an example.  I can see clearly that he embodies many virtues that will put him in good stead in later life.  He has a very confident, tenacious and outgoing personality.  He is a fantastic engineer, a creative thinker, he’s imaginative, he’s a problem-solver, he’s naturally gifted at applied maths, he’s as stubborn as hell, but he’s also driven.  He shares some of these virtues with Daddy, others with me, and he generally runs rings around all of us.

Yet, this is the child who was placed in the lowest ability group when he started school in September for the single reason that he wasn’t ready, at age four, to learn his letter sounds.  In truth, Henry point blank refused with folded arms to learn his letter sounds.  Did I mention already that he was stubborn?  Did I mention that he was only four years old?  He met and surpassed all of his EYFS targets and was nowhere near the bottom of his class in 6/7 key areas (I have a copy of he school’s own assessment records showing this), yet literacy alone was chosen to group and he was told (via his group) that he was bottom of the class.

A hundred years ago, Henry’s teacher would have sat him in the corner of his classroom with a pointy hat emblazoned with a ‘D’.  Cruel obviously, but don’t be deluded into thinking that things are all that different today.  In a school where everybody knows that in-class group colour names translate to ‘bright’, ‘upper-average’, ‘lower average’, ‘behind’ and ‘stupid’, the possible effects on Henry’s self-esteem were the same as if he was made to wear the dunce’s cap.

It is Henry’s inability to fit into any of his school’s government designed (for tracking purposes) boxes that shamefully seals his fate.  But Henry’s creativity, tenacity, critical thinking and resourcefulness – skills which truly sets us apart in adulthood and leads to success – carry little weight with our government which for some reason (nostalgia?) holds the stuffy and regimented education provided by post-war grammar schools in higher esteem than the acclaimed systems of countries like Finland, who always top the polls as the world’s best.

Incidentally, ability grouping is practically outlawed in Finland.  A no-brainer isn’t it?

What does it say about a system which awards a high ‘ability’ label to a four year old child because they have rote-learned their phonic sounds, whilst simultaneously awarding a low ability label to her classmate who knows no sounds, but has amazing creative and problem solving skills?



If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.” – Debbie Millman, American Educator.

What I find most disappointing when I listen to the rhetoric spouted by government ministers is the prevailing notion that ‘ability’ is fixed.  A fixed-ability mindset assumes that intelligence and aptitude is static and that it can’t be changed in any significant way.  Baseline testing informs and strengthens this ethos, as does the government’s requirements to track and predict potential.  Children are measured with fixed-ability thinking against a fixed standard of excellence (test results) which is woefully flawed.  With fixed-ability thinking teachers at the helm, those children who sit nicely, write neatly and have learned early rote literacy and numeracy skills are privileged by their labels throughout their primary schooling.  This is not the case for those children, like my unfortunate middle child, where we find very little is expected.  Henry’s designated potential has been documented to reach the dizzying heights of ‘low-achiever’ in seven years’ time.  I wish I had the confidence that a few teachers he meets along the way will see beyond his label and invest in him to be the best he can be, but I don’t.  Fixed-ability thinking is far too entrenched and pressure to perform is too great in schools where teachers are stressed and overworked.

My children will hopefully come out of primary school unscathed for the simple reason that their parents wholeheartedly refute and object to the labels they have been given, demanding instead that they believe in themselves and believe the truth – that their potential is limitless.  I’m begging you all to follow our lead.  As parents we should raise our voices in protest every time we hear the words, ‘high ability’, ‘average ability’ or ‘low ability’ assigned to our children.  Nobody knows what our children’s ability will be.



Ability grouping is in greatest danger of affecting the single most important thing about our children which denotes their future success:  Self-belief.

Instead of cultivating an idea that ‘ability’ and success is only validated by test results, all educators should be embracing the healthy fact that children’s talents, interests and aptitudes can change massively.  No teacher has the faintest idea what a child’s true ‘potential’ is because it isn’t written in stone.  Every child’s potential is there to be discovered, it is unknowable, unhindered by charts and spreadsheets, and free from expectations.  Telling a child they’re not good enough, placing them in the bottom group, failing to recognise their successes in light of their failures against fixed standards will create damage that may take a lifetime to overcome.  It is a sad fact that many people never overcome the limits placed upon them in childhood.  Don’t let your child’s self-worth be a casualty of a government obsessed with testing their schools, under the guise of testing your child.

  • Do we want our children labelled, insecure and constantly judged by fixed-ability thinking?  Or do we want an environment which leads them to acquire an insatiable hunger for learning and growth that will last a lifetime?